So Long, Nucky: 8 Things Boardwalk Empire Taught You About American History

So Long, Nucky 8 Things Boardwalk Empire Taught You About American History

And that’s that for “Boardwalk Empire,” HBO’s miniseries about Atlantic City, prohibition and the rise and fall of Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi). The show ended its five-season run yesterday.

I love all that real gangster stuff (not the hip-hop crowd — the Meyer Lansky types): “The Godfather” (I and II, not III), “Goodfellas,” “The Sopranos,” Jimmy Cagney … “Boardwalk Empire” stacked up pretty well. However, as a way to teach social history, it blew the others away. Here are some things you learned about America from the show that you probably didn’t get in school.

1. Organized crime has always been bigger than the Italian mafia.

Yeah, Capone and Luciano were Italian, but Lansky and Benny “Don’t Call Me Bugsy” Siegel were not-so-nice Jewish boys. Nucky Johnson, the real-life crook who actually ran Atlantic City in the 1920s (why they changed it to Thompson for the show, I have no idea) and his guys were largely Irish, as was that other Great Bootlegger Joseph Kennedy, father of President John Kennedy.

2. America has never treated its war vets right.

Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and Richie Harrow (Jack Huston) came back from World War I and just were not able to fit into civilian life. The rest of the guys at the American Legion hall, whether they had been in the Philippines putting down the rebellion there or in the Great War, were messes, too. These were the same men who occupied parts of Washington, D.C. in 1932 demanding to be paid the bonuses promised in the 1924 World War Adjusted Compensation Act. Rather than pay these (which were actually not due until 1945) to vets during the Great Depression, the U.S. government turned the Army on them. Douglas MacArthur, the jackass who would later run away from the Japanese in 1942 and who would almost start a nuclear war in Korea in 1951, led the attack on American vets. Today, 22 vets a day are committing suicide; they are a disproportionate number of the homeless and the unemployed. So, take that yellow magnet off your car.


3. Premarital and extramarital sex is not something invented by the 1960s counterculture.

It’s just that The Pill made it a whole lot safer. Then, HIV/AIDS came along, and, well, … The point is your grandparents and great-grandparents were probably having it off just as much as you are.

4. Racism is not just a Southern disease.

The 1920s were actually one of the peak times the KKK was active, and it was thriving in New Jersey, well north of the Mason-Dixon line. Nucky and Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) may be business partners, and perhaps even friends in a way, but that didn’t mean Chalky could come in the front door or sit with Nucky at the club.

5. Women today have it a lot better than their grandmothers did in the 1920s and 1930s.

The things Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald) put up with, the entire life of Gilliam Darmody (Gretchen Mol) illustrate that there has been some progress.

6. Prohibition of drugs doesn’t work.

We tried it in the 1920s, and it just made smugglers rich. Still, we have a war on drugs, and except for Colorado and Washington state, the country hasn’t learned a thing.

7. Some of the music from the Jazz Age was really crap.

On the whole, the program does a fine job of showcasing the music of the era, but that means some of the stupid ditties of the day get included. “Barney Google (with the Goo-G0o-Googly Eyes)” for instance. By the way, if you look at the Top 10 list from any decade, you’ll be appalled at what was a hit and stunned by the works of genius that didn’t get air time.

8. What the hell happened to men’s fashion once the Great Depression hit?

Puff ties, stick-pin tie tacks, silk vests. Just the collars alone were cooler than anything you can find today — high collars, wing-tips, banker’s collars. And the shoes. There was even an episode where a lawyer wore green shoes into court. OK, maybe that was a major fail, but seriously, gents, we can do better. Forget dress British, think Yiddish. Dress Nucky get Lucky.

And now, I have my Sunday nights free. I wish I felt better about that.

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